Our frontier mentality and the future of Earth
No one witnessed the birth of Earth. The Earth does not have a birth certificate to authenticate its age. But there is no doubt about Earth's antiquity. It is 4.55 billion years old. In the context of the Universe which burst into existence 13.7 billion years ago, Earth is in its early middle age. It will live for another five billion years, when the Sun will become a Red Giant, swallowing the nearby planets and ending its luminous career by dwindling into a white dwarf.
Although Earth is very small—a mote of dust—in the vast cosmic arena, it is the only planet that is filled with exquisite beauty, a cornucopia of boisterous wildlife slithering, scampering, soaring and swimming all over the planet. It showcases timeless marvels—a panoply of wonders—sculpted by Nature over millions of years. It is home to towering mountains, alpine glaciers, lush green rainforests, subtropical wilderness and millennia-old humongous trees, gushing geysers, beautiful coral reefs, lofty waterfalls and pristine lakes. The Earth is also home to incredible sandstone arches, deep canyons, varicoloured petrified wood and multi-hued badlands, massive caves filled with imposing stalagmites and stalactites, sparsely vegetated and colourfully painted deserts, gigantic sand dunes, and hundreds of species of flora and fauna.
Evidence of life—bacteria and single-celled organisms—date to 3.85 billion years ago. Since then, life suffered wave after wave of cataclysmic extinctions. The dinosaurs are perhaps the most famous extinct creatures who roamed the Earth's surface unchallenged during the Mesozoic Era. After surviving for nearly 165 million years, they became victims of the greatest mass deaths in the history of our planet 65 million years ago when a large asteroid hit the Earth.
About 25 million years ago, most of the present day species emerged. Now, fast forward to about two million years ago and we see the evolution of our ancestors—upright, biped, primate mammals. Evidence shows that modern humans originated in Africa within the past 200,000 years, yet there was no move toward high level civilisation. It was the Sumerians of Mesopotamia who developed the world's first civilisation roughly 6,000 years ago.
We have had the planet to ourselves for a small fraction of time. During this short time interval, we outfoxed other species in the game of survival. Maybe they ran out of luck in evolution's lottery, or perhaps sometime in the distant past, we became completely dissociated from the checks and balances between man and nature and became a super-predator.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution circa 1760, we made a toxic mess of our natural environment, resulting in an ever-hotter climate, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, widespread droughts, frequent and much wilder storms, crop failures and tens of millions of climate refugees. Our unrestrained use of fossil fuels for more than a century had been slowly pushing the planet toward climatological catastrophe.
Today, we are fixated on enjoying the present and refusing to account for the consequences of our actions on tomorrow. Social scientists interpret this type of behaviour as frontier ethic, prevalent in Western culture as well as others. This ethic embraces a rather narrow view of humans in the environment and even a narrower view of nature. It is characterised by three tenets.
The first is that the Earth has an infinite supply of resources for exclusive human use. There is always more and it is all for us; humans are apart from nature and immune to natural laws; and human success derives from the control of nature.
This tenet no doubt evolved in the prehistoric time when human numbers were small and the Earth's resources did indeed appear inexhaustible. Not anymore. The massive increase in economic activity and the upsurge in population growth in the last 200 years have brought us face-to-face with the planet's limitations.
The second tenet sought to position humankind outside the realm of nature. Many people still continue to view human beings as separate from nature and persist in thinking we can do whatever we please without harming the planet. To the contrary, our independence is an illusion, engendered by our remoteness from a world we see through rose-coloured glasses and thermo-paned windows.
As for the third tenet, industrialised nations view nature as a force that must be conquered and subjugated. Hence, we manipulated wildlife, fisheries, land, rivers, oceans and forests like so many pieces in a board game, until the environment reached a dangerous point of disequilibrium.
Over the years, the frontier ethic permeated our lives so much that we became more remote from the natural world outside our artificial environments. It influences our personal goals and expectations without thinking about the effects on the long-term health of the planet.
It cannot be overemphasised that the fate of the planet, our home, and the millions of species that share it with us, as well as the fate of all future generations, lies in our hands. Do we realise that because of resource and ozone depletion, global warming and other problems, the human species will be wiped off the face of the planet if we do not change our lifestyles? At the least, things will deteriorate to the extent that we could lose centuries of technological and economic progress in the next few decades. Our wonderfully diverse biological world, the product of billions of years of evolution, could be eradicated in a fraction of the Earth's history.
So, what should we do to keep the planet habitable for our future generations? Scientists have urged world leaders in vain to combat global-warming emissions, which have only continued to soar upward. Should we instead rely on a pandemic, such as the coronavirus that is shutting down countries across the globe, slowing down economic activities, halting industrial productions and travel, thereby causing a significant decline in air pollution and carbon/nitrogen emissions all over the world?
The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy—a palpable human nightmare unfolding in overloaded hospitals with alarming speed, racing toward a horizon darkened by economic disaster and chock-full of signs showing more sufferings to come. This global crisis is also an eye-opener for the other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes—anthropogenic climate change.
The cure due to coronavirus is temporary and totally unacceptable, whereas the threat from the adverse effects of climate change will remain with us for years, unless we shape up pronto. Nevertheless, coronavirus should make us wonder if lessons learned from the pandemic might be the beginning of a meaningful shift from business-as-usual attitude.
On this International Mother Earth Day, let us pause for a moment and imagine what the Earth would look like when it will be bereft of mirth, when there will be no wilderness and wildlife, when lakes will be filled with sudsy waters, when coastlines will become unrecognisable and when the air will become a witch's brew. Can our planet still be called Earth? The answer is no, because we do not have the insight to predict the consequences of our frontier mentality and exercise restraint where we must.
I end the piece with the following words of wisdom from the Native American Chief Seattle. "The Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.